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Iowa's Grassley says 'vague' language defining dating relationship his concern in bipartisan gun bill

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U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, talks with members of the media after hosting a roundtable discussing challenges with local law enforcement leaders on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in Davenport.

Iowa's two Republican senators split on Tuesday in their votes for whether to advance a measure aimed at keeping guns away from dangerous people in the wake of several mass shootings. 

The legislation, negotiated for two weeks by a bipartisan group of senators, was released Tuesday afternoon ahead of a procedural vote.

It cleared the Senate with a 64-34 vote, with U.S. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley voting against and fellow Republican from Iowa, Joni Ernst, joining 13 other Republican senators in voting "yes" to advance the legislation past the 60-vote hurdle. 

The vote is an initial test of support for the bill, which is expected to come up for a final vote later this week.

On a call with reporters on Wednesday, Grassley said he voted against advancing the legislation because he received the 80-page bill, called the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, in too short of time ahead of the vote to review the text of the legislation, which he said he and his staff are doing now. 

"Almost all of it is good, but I have some concerns that I will be wrestling with to decide a 'yes' or 'no' vote, and they deal with safeguarding constitutional due process," Grassley said. 

Among other measures, the bill bans convicted domestic abusers, including those in serious dating relationships, from purchasing a gun for at least five years, stepping toward closing a so-called "boyfriend loophole."

 Grassley said he thought the definition of a dating relationship in the bill was "too vague." 

The bill defines "dating relationship" as a "relationship between two individuals who have or have recently had a continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature."

The bill also clarifies that "A casual acquaintanceship or ordinary fraternization in a business or social context does not constitute a dating relationship."

"I'm trying to get the best legal advice on it, but so far, it seems to me the text is pretty vague to be enforced in the definition of what a dating relationship is," Grassley said. "And then in regard to due process, respondents in courts won't be able to determine who's subject to law. Since these definitions are vague, and I think that needs to be clarified."

The proposal would also make juvenile and mental health records available during background checks when someone under the age of 21 buys a gun and funnels federal funds to states enacting "red-flag laws" which aim to temporarily confiscate guns from people considered to be dangerous.

It also puts millions of dollars toward expanding mental health programs in communities and schools and bolstering school safety. The bill also hardens penalties for so-called "straw purchasing," when individuals buy guns for people barred from purchasing firearms. 

Ernst was one of 14 Republican senators who voted to advance the bill. In a statement emailed to a Quad-City Times/Dispatch-Argus reporter by a spokesperson, Ernst said "this bill does not take away the rights of any law-abiding American." 

“As a lifelong supporter of the Second Amendment, proud gun owner, and combat veteran, I’m adamantly opposed to any infringement on our Constitutional Rights. This bill does not take away the rights of any law-abiding American," Ernst said, according to the emailed statement. "Every American wants to keep our kids and our schools safe and provide folks access to mental health treatment, and this proposal helps do that without placing new restrictions on law-abiding gun owners.”

Ernst has previously objected to similar language, opposing a proposal that would've retroactively classified assault convictions as felonies and banned those convicted from owning or purchasing guns.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., praised the legislation as "the most significant gun safety reforms and violence reduction investments in decades," and acknowledged it didn't include everything Democrats wanted. 

"This bipartisan agreement will not end gun violence, but it is an important step towards making our nation safer," Durbin said in an emailed statement to reporters. 


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Bettendorf, East Moline, and Silvis Reporter

Sarah is the Davenport, Scott County, and Iowa politics reporter for the Quad-City Times/Dispatch-Argus. A DeWitt native, she graduated from the University of Iowa in 2021 and was editor of the student-run newspaper The Daily Iowan.

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